Migration effort seeks to save a species

Published 12:07 am Sunday, January 18, 2009

They’ve never seen a human being or heard a human voice. They’ve never seen a bicycle or a pop can or heard the backfire of a pickup truck. They are the whooping cranes of Operation Migration.

On Oct. 17, 2008, a flock of 14 young whooping cranes began a 1,285-mile migration route from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to two Florida destinations, St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge south of Tallahassee and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge north of St. Petersburg.

En route the whooping cranes stopped overnight on Jan. 12 in Pike County after spending several days grounded by the weather in Chilton County. Few, if any, people in Pike County have seen a whooping crane and may never see one.

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For these endangered birds to remain in the wild and far from the human eye is the best – and maybe the only – way for them to increase in number to the point that they are no longer endangered.

“Around 1940, there were only 15 whooping cranes in existence,” said Joe Duff, co-founder of Operation Migration, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the endangered birds. “Around that time, the whooping cranes were on the edge of extinction primarily due to loss of habitat.”

Through the conservation efforts of many a migratory route was established where the cranes migrated from Canada to Texas.

About 200 whooping cranes now follow that route each year but, if those birds were lost to disease or natural disaster, the already endangered species would be decimated.

Realizing this, Duff and Bill Lishmann pioneered a method of re-establishing migration routes. Their project uses the isolation rearing of young whooping cranes and trains them to follow ultralight aircraft.

Pike County was along this migration route that Operation Migration plotted for the 2008 migration. The crew and birds arrived in rural Pike County on Monday, Jan. 12. Duff shrugged off the unusually cold Pike County weather but still opted for the warmth of his camper. He leaned back on the sofa in his camper, pushed back his cap and thought for a minute before he spoke about the “migration.”

“Stupidity,” he said, with a big, ol’ grin. “That’s why we do this.”

Then he turned serious.

“Operation Migration is an opportunity to help save a species,” he said. “The whooping crane is 60 million years old. These birds have been forced to the edge of extinction. What a travesty it would be for these birds to be lost forever. They are the tallest birds in existence. They are known for their sound and call and there’s nothing to compare with that.”

Duff is committed to the preservation of the whooping crane and so are the 12 or so others who work and volunteer with Operation Migration.

The project cranes are costume-reared from hatching, taught to follow their ultralight aircraft, fledged over their future breeding territory in Wisconsin and led by ultralight on their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida. The birds learn the migratory route and then return on their own the following spring.

The reintroduction began in the fall of 2001 and has added birds to the population in each following year, except in early 2007, when a disastrous storm killed all of the yearlings after their arrival in Florida.

The goal of Operation Migration is to establish 125 individual birds, including 25 breed pairs, in the wildlife refuges in Florida.

“These birds are raised to live in the wild,” Duff said. “So, along the route, we don’t reveal their exact location due to isolation protocol. In order for these birds to survive, they must be fearful of ‘outsiders.’”

The eggs are laid by cranes at a USGA facility in Maryland and are hatched at the Operation Migration facility in Wisconsin.

“The only sounds that the birds hear are the sounds and call of the whooping crane and the humming sound of the motor of an ultralight,” Duff said. “They never see a human as such. Anyone who is around the birds must be in costume.”

The costumes are white baggy suits with hoods and visors so that the eyes of the human cannot be seen.

Duff said, because of the isolation policy, there are volunteers with Operation Migration who have never seen the birds.

“We have a whooping crane puppet that is used to train the birds to eat and drink,” he said. “The birds learn to identify with the puppet and to follow its lead.”

When the birds are old enough, they are trained to follow the ultralights or trikes.

“We have them in a low pen and we taxi a trike around and around the pen so that they learn to follow it,” Duff said. “So, when we fly, they will fly with us.”

When the birds “fly” there are four trikes in the air with them and a Cessna flying over top and keeping watch.

“Some days we’ll have a perfect launch and all 14 birds will follow the lead trike,” Duff said. “Other days a few will trail behind and we have had days when there will be birds following all four trikes.”

The whooping cranes are rather slow flying birds, around 38 miles per hour and, if there’s a headwind, they can be slowed to about 20 miles per hour.

“We left Wisconsin in October knowing that we would have to have from 23 to 25 fly mornings to reach our destination,” Duff said. “We’ve been grounded more than expected but it’s been a great migration.”

Duff planned to fly from Pike County just after sunrise on January 13 if the weather cooperated and it did.

Just as the sun peeped over the horizon, the Operation Migration crew was on the way to the pen where the birds were kept.

Liz Condie, chief operating officer, waited across the lake in anticipation of the flight.

“We never know how the birds will take flight,” she said. “The lead pilot might have to circle around a few times to get them to follow.”

As Condie spoke, the trike took flight with 13 of the whooping cranes following right behind. A lone crane trailed but quickly caught up with the others. In less than a minute, the birds were only specs in the sky and they were on their way to their Florida destination.

From Pike County, the ideal situation would have been for seven of the cranes to reach their St. Mark’s destination on Jan. 16 but “winds aloft” were too strong for launch a couple of days.

So, the celebration flyover at St. Mark’s was delayed.

But all is well that ends well and the migration of the whooping cranes Class of 2008-09 is on track for a good ending.